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The first half of her thesis—that presidents until Richard Nixon utilized a cadre of policymakers to double as speechwriters, thus uniting speechwriting with policy—is strong. Gelderman shows that, with varying degrees of effectiveness, presidents created policy through the speechwriting process itself, often taking months to draft their most famous words. The process was collegial, as with Eisenhower's "Wheaties" group, which drafted policy over breakfast every day. But with Nixon, media image, not substance, became the goal of the presidency. Nixon crafted his controversial speeches in isolation and kept key policy advisors in the dark. Gelderman's argument deteriorates in its post-Nixon passages. She identifies Nixon's heir as Ronald Reagan, which seems an odd choice, given Nixon's reputation as a workaholic who alienated his colleagues and Reagan's as a 9-to-5er who was content to let his aides do the work. The common ground, according to Gelderman, is the "virtual presidency": that is, the central importance to both leaders of image-crafting and the power of television. Gelderman claims that the reliance on TV has divorced policy from speechwriting and reduced the latter to the art of crafting attractive soundbites. But to prove this, she relies almost exclusively on foreign-policy issues, with little attention to domestic programs. She also shortchanges the Ford, Carter, and Bush administrations; Carter felt dishonest using speechwriters and wrote complex speeches. The author ultimately argues that Clinton is returning to the old marriage of speechwriting and policy (though here she bases her argument almost entirely on domestic issues, such as his masterful handling of the tragedy in Oklahoma City).
An unfocused and unconvincing ending after a promising start.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt 1933-1945
For Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the essence of political leadership in a democracy was teaching. His radio talks to the nation that came to be called fireside chats did not preach or exhort, as his cousin Theodore Roosevelt's speeches did. FDR's explained in direct, simple, calm language a certain problem and what the administration proposed to do about it. These talks constituted a new genre in U.S. political literature, and they also fashioned a new relationship between the president and the people. The country's foremost civic educator called the room where he met reporters for his biweekly press conferences his "schoolroom," the budget, his "textbook," his speeches, "seminars."
Roosevelt understood that great presidents must be great teachers. Just as Lincoln had restored the Union, not the status quo antebellum Union but something vastly different, so too did FDR have to persuade the nation to replace laissez-faire economics with government initiatives. Using carefully crafted speeches to make revolutionary ideas feel familiar, he succeeded in shifting to Washington functions and concerns that had been the job of states or private groups since the founding of the Republic.
A political leader bent on getting the public to endorse a departure from accepted policy has to deal with public aversion to innovation; he has to study public opinion and make a strategic retreat when he is too far ahead of it. Speechwriter Samuel Rosenman quotedRoosevelt as saying, "It's a terrible thing to look over your shoulder when you are trying to lead and find no one there." His grasp of public opinion was the result of reading a variety of newspapers, hostile and friendly, as well as the daily digest of editorials prepared by the Commerce Department. He carried on an immense correspondence, sampled representative letters from the unprecedented volume that came to him, sent his wife to places he could not go himself, and placed great faith in her reports. He knew how to extract a maximum of information from each of the scores of experts who visited him.
When scientific polling (that is, the sampling method) came into use in 1935, he consulted that source of information about trends in public thinking. He regularly looked at Elmo Roper's column in the New York Herald Tribune that was based on Roper's Fortune surveys; he followed results from George Gallup's American Institute of Public Opinion polls; and he actually talked several times to Hadley Cantril, who founded the Office of Opinion Research at Princeton in 1939. Not once did President Roosevelt "change his mind," Cantril said later, "because of what any survey showed. But he did base his strategy a great deal on these results."
The reason Roosevelt expended so much energy in discerning the public's opinion of certain issues was not to figure out which way to veer but to discover how much and what kind of persuasion was needed to bring people along. In this way he determined what to emphasize, what illustrations to use to clothe the unorthodox in the garb of the familiar, what argument to employ to banish fear and rally the nation. Roosevelt's speeches were the prime instrument for his conduct of public affairs, the vehicle by which he set in motion social and moral forces that affected not only every American but people all over the world. "Roosevelt knew that all those words would constitute the bulk of the estate that he would leave to posterity," speechwriter and presidential troubleshooter Robert Sherwood said, "and that his ultimate measurement would depend on the reconciliation of what he said with what he did."
Roosevelt did not delegate speechwriting to others. He insisted on being involved in the construction, from start to finish, of all major speeches. Although crises followed one after another relentlessly during FDR's occupancy of the White House, the president set aside five or six nights a month to work on speeches. On these nights Roosevelt and his writers—over the years several different aides but always Samuel Rosenman—gathered at 7:15 in the president's study for drinks, which FDR mixed from a tray on his desk. Shoptalk was discouraged during the thirty-minute ritual; conversations usually consisted of gossip, funny stories, and reminiscences. At precisely 7:45, the men sat down to eat at a portable extension table that accommodated six.
Dinner over, the president moved to a sofa near the fireplace and read aloud the most recent draft, while a secretary sat ready to take his dictated revisions and addenda. Together he and his writers tightened and simplified phraseology, eliminated sentences, paragraphs, and often whole pages, and dictated fresh passages to take their place. The president often drew material from his own speech file, a collection of miscellaneous items that he had been accumulating for many years. It included items from his correspondence, notes from his reading, memoranda, clippings, and telegrams, as well as suggestions submitted by members of Congress and others. Sometimes a call went out to poet Archibald MacLeish, who served as librarian of Congress during the 1940s, or some other close adviser, to lend a hand.
After the president went to bed, Rosenman and Robert Sherwood and often Harry Hopkins, the speechwriting team during the 1940s, worked most of the night to produce another draft, which was placed on the president's breakfast tray the next morning. If there was time during the day, they conferred again and got further reactions and instructions from Roosevelt. In the evening, they resumed writing in another after-work session. The process continued day and night until they agreed on a final reading copy. Major speeches went through a dozen or more drafts, each of which the president had studied, added to, trimmed, read aloud, and subjected to searching criticism.
By the time he delivered the speech, Roosevelt knew it almost by heart and needed only occasional glances at the manuscript as he spoke. He was often persuasive and sometimes eloquent, displaying a power won in large part by his meticulous involvement in the writing process. Just as important, the men who helped him thoroughly understood his thought and rhetorical style, as well as his politics.
No leader's adviser ever had more influence than Harry Hopkins. He was the president's eyes, ears, and legs. During the war years he became the trusted go-between for Roosevelt and Winston Churchill; even Joseph Stalin showed uncommon respect for him. During FDR's first two terms, Hopkins had had a number of important jobs, among them head of the Works Progress Administration and secretary of commerce. Whatever was uppermost in Roosevelt's mind was what Hopkins worked on. He was privy to presidential secrets and papers. He enjoyed easy entree to the president, living from 1940 to 1943 in Roosevelt's very house. He even had untrammeled access to that most heavily guarded area in the wartime White House, the Map Room, which was the nerve center of the Allied effort. As a (for a time the) key adviser, Hopkins made an ideal speechwriter. No policy, after all, can be fully shaped until it is put in words.
Samuel Rosenman did not live in the White House except for certain particularly frenzied speechwriting jobs, but he, too, had long been a part of Roosevelt's political life; in fact he had served FDR for a longer time than had Hopkins. Rosenman had been adviser and speechwriter to Governor Roosevelt. He introduced the words "New Deal," a phrase that became synonymous with FDR's name, in his draft of the governor's acceptance speech at the 1932 Democratic convention. Rosenman first suggested a brain trust, an informal group of advisers to contribute ideas and to help with speeches that went beyond the parochial concerns of one state. A Columbia University alumnus, Rosenman asked professors he knew there to become members of the group, principally so they could easily and inexpensively come and go between Albany and New York City and still tend to their scholarly duties.
At first Raymond Moley, Rexford Tugwell, Adolf Berle, and Lindsay Rogers, in addition to Roosevelt's former law partner Basil O'Connor, comprised the governor's "privy council," as he privately termed the men. Later others were added, so that eventually any FDR adviser came to be called a brain truster. Several of the original group went on to help run New Deal agencies, even while they maintained speechwriting duties. None, though, lasted as long as Rosenman, who served as speechwriter during all four presidential terms. Yet not until 1943 did he draw a federal paycheck. From the time of Roosevelt's first inauguration until then, Rosenman had served as judge on the New York Supreme Court, commuting to Washington on weekends and during summers at his own expense. Sheer physical exhaustion forced him to resign his judicial position in early 1943 and move to Washington to serve as the first special counsel to the president, a job especially created for the speechwriter.
When the brilliant young lawyer Thomas Corcoran, brought in to help with speechwriting by original brain truster Raymond Moley in 1934, fell out of favor by the beginning of the third term, Rosenman and Hopkins looked for a replacement, especially as their duties expanded just before and during the war. Pulitzer-winning playwright Robert Sherwood joined the pair in 1940 to help with campaign speeches and stayed on as a close Roosevelt aide until the president's death in 1945. He, too, found himself juggling more and more duties as he became another of the chief executive's trusted troubleshooters. By early 1944, for example, Sherwood was spending considerable time overseas, trying to reorganize the Office of War Information, which Rosenman had set up in 1941. During the war, he and Rosenman, both New Yorkers, kept rooms at the Willard, a hotel directly across the street from the White House.
Clearly these men were more than mere verbal technicians; they were presidential aides deeply and continuously involved in high-level activities and associations. They had real policy responsibilities. Since every major speech of a president is in one way or another a policymaking speech, those who take part in its preparation while it is going through its many drafts are in a strategic position to help make that policy. They provide a sounding board for discussion of the best means of attaining certain of the president's goals. A naturally gregarious man who preferred talking to reading or writing, FDR liked to think out loud. Written speeches force an administration to make decisions, crystallize policy, impose discipline. The speech preparation process did exactly that for FDR.
Understanding the importance of preparing the public for big changes, he used his speeches to lead the public gradually, with a magnificent sense of timing. He knew when to use the bully pulpit and when to pull back. "I am like a cat," he once said. "I make a quick stroke and then I relax." Instead of introducing a piece of legislation and then trying to woo the public, the common practice of later presidents, Roosevelt slowly set about convincing the public first, so people could gradually come to accept his idea. A case in point is Social Security. Slowly, step-by-step, FDR persuaded the people that the economic assistance to be provided by Social Security did not undermine their ideal of self-reliance. He shaped public opinion through press conferences, a message to Congress, and two fireside chats, progressively moving toward his goal of legislation and culminating in a State of the Union Address.
Yet nothing exemplifies FDR's point-to-point navigation better than his success at shifting the country's mood from isolationist to internationalist by means of carefully constructed speeches delivered over a three-year period. From the Quarantine Speech of October 5, 1937, to the Arsenal of Democracy fireside chat of December 29, 1940, he "brought the people along" a "bite" at a time.
Although the United States had rejected the League of Nations, it had been basically internationalist in outlook, participating in foreign trade, attending world conferences, and signing international treaties. After the Japanese thrust into Manchuria in 1931, however, and the rise of Adolf Hitler in Germany, isolationist sentiment took hold in the United States. In 1933 the London Economic Conference that was convened to find answers to worldwide depression ended in failure; Germany resigned from the World Disarmament Conference; Germany and Japan quit the League of Nations. In 1934 the Nazis staged the infamous putsch that resulted in the murder of the Austrian chancellor, and Benito Mussolini invaded and conquered Ethiopia. The year 1936 brought the formal establishment of the Rome-Berlin Axis, the Spanish Civil War, and the Japanese and German Anti-Comintern Pact. When Italy joined in 1937, the Axis powers were united, causing England to rearm. Japan resumed its belligerent activities in China, now attacking the mainland. By July of 1937, the Sino-Japanese War, though undeclared, was on in earnest. As the specter of war grew more menacing, Americans became more isolationist. Hadley Cantril's poll of February 1937 showed the country to be overwhelmingly nationalist.
Like most Americans, Roosevelt wanted the United States to stay out of war, but he felt that maintaining isolationism ultimately would make the country more vulnerable than embarking upon some kind of international cooperation with the democracies. His personal correspondence as early as 1933 and continuing through the rest of the decade expresses this fear that public opinion was moving in a most unpragmatic direction. In a letter written just days before his first public move to change that direction, he acknowledges "the real perils of the international situation. I am disturbed by it and by its daily changing events. Soon I think the nation will begin to appreciate the ultimate dangers of isolating ourselves completely from all joint efforts towards peace."
The president deliberately chose Chicago, the heart of isolationism, as the site for his initial educative effort on October 5, 1937. He had assured the worried treasury secretary, Henry Morgenthau, Jr., that to accomplish his goal would be a matter of "longtime education, and I am not going to do anything which would require a definite response or action on the part of anybody." This explains Hopkins and Rosenman's failure, during the drafting process, to persuade the president to be more explicit about what he meant by quarantine, the key word of the speech; according to Rosenman, "he insisted on leaving it vague."
Following a jubilant morning ticker-tape parade down Michigan Avenue, FDR spoke of international cooperation, surprising everyone with his choice of subject matter. Since his ostensible purpose had been to dedicate the Outer Drive bridge, Chicagoans had expected a speech praising the Works Progress Administration, the agency responsible for building the span that linked the north and south sides of the city, but Roosevelt talked instead of foreign affairs. He warned Americans of the "present reign of terror and international lawlessness" that threatened the "very foundations of civilization." Peace-loving nations, he insisted, must make a concerted effort in opposition. "The peace, the freedom and the security of ninety percent of the population of the world is being jeopardized by the remaining ten percent who are threatening a breakdown of all international order and law." So rampant was this lawlessness, the president called it an epidemic: "When an epidemic of physical disease threatens to spread, the community approves and joins in a quarantine of the patients in order to protect the health of the community against the spread of the disease.... War is a contagion, whether it is declared or undeclared. It can engulf states and peoples remote from the original scene of hostilities." The president concluded by saying once again that there must be a concerted effort by the democracies to preserve peace. "America hates war. America hopes for peace. Therefore, America actively engages in the search for peace."
Although immediate reaction to the Quarantine Speech was more positive than negative—"I thought frankly that there would be more criticism," the president wrote former Wilson adviser Colonel Edward House—leading isolationists directed a vociferous and protracted attack in the press and over the radio. When FDR backed away from his hard-hitting statements on October 5, the public (and much later some historians) believed he had been "scared off" by the warmongering charges hurled at him. In fact, the president had drawn back because he feared the isolationists' confrontational hullabaloo might mislead public opinion. He had actually been encouraged by reaction to the speech to the point of telling Colonel House that "as time goes on we can slowly but surely make people realize that the threat of war would be greater to us if we close all the doors and windows than if we go into the street and use our influence to help curb the riot."
A mere week after the Quarantine Speech, the president addressed the nation in his tenth fireside chat since 1933. Because his purpose was to recall Congress to a special session to pass additional economic reforms owing to a persistent recession, he dealt with foreign matters in just four sentences: "I want our great democracy to be wise enough to realize that aloofness from war is not promoted by unawareness of war. In a world of mutual suspicions, peace must be affirmatively reached for. It cannot just be wished for. And it cannot be waited for."
The president's political instincts were on target. Despite his having made no foreign policy proposals, legislators were so nervous about the possibility of the United States being drawn into war that the special-session Congress almost passed the Ludlow Amendment. Representative Louis Ludlow, an Indiana Democrat, had been sponsoring a constitutional amendment that would require a national referendum before Congress could declare war. Senator Gerald Nye introduced a companion measure in the Senate. The Ludlow Amendment was defeated by a slim margin of 209 to 188, illustrating the strength of isolationist forces in Congress and giving a clear sign that the nation was not yet ready for a more active foreign policy.
If Roosevelt, as some suggested, had been planning to implement his Quarantine Speech by asking Congress to repeal the 1937 Neutrality Act, such a course no longer seemed feasible. It was abundantly clear to the president and to other internationalists that the Neutrality Act, which embargoed sales of munitions to any belligerent, unintentionally favored the aggressive nations, which had been rearming for years. When those nations blithely marched to war, fully equipped for battle, they easily vanquished their unprepared victims, denied the opportunity by law to buy U.S. munitions. But Congress was suspicious and rebellious because of a recession and bitterness about the pressure FDR had exerted to get Congress to pass a bill to increase the number of Supreme Court justices after the sitting nine judges had declared several key New Deal programs unconstitutional. As a result, Roosevelt's near-term prospects in seeking more control over foreign affairs had dimmed. In a letter at the end of the year to Joseph Tumulty, Woodrow Wilson's former secretary, the president complained about "Republican propaganda" for "talk [that] turned more and more to the 'peace at any price' theory. That is what I have to combat at the present time."
In his annual message to Congress on January 3, 1938, the president addressed domestic issues but managed to work in a warning to the nation that "much of the trouble in our own lifetime has sprung from a long period of inaction—from ignoring what fundamentally was happening to us, and from a time-serving unwillingness to face facts as they forced themselves upon us." The State of the Union Speech set the pattern for the year; the president always aligned matters at home with increasing danger abroad. His April 14, 1938, speech to the nation is typical. "Democracy has disappeared in several other great nations—not because the people of those nations disliked democracy but because they had grown tired of unemployment and insecurity, of seeing their children hungry." Even when England and France ignominiously bartered the liberty of the people of the Sudetenland to Hitler in return for the dictator's promise to end his expansionist policies, Roosevelt continued his go-slow policy. In early October, he did announce an increase of $300 million for national defense and directed the State Department to begin a drive for Congress to revise the Neutrality Act, but he stayed out of sight. He continued to confine himself to noncontroversial statements like the one he made on October 11 to the New York Herald Tribune Radio Forum. "There can be no peace," he said, "if the reign of law is ... replaced ... by sheer force; if national policy adopts as a deliberate instrument the threat of war."
Lawyers Benjamin Cohen and Thomas Corcoran, who often worked directly with the president on legislation, started helping Rosenman with speeches in 1938. They also took part in writing the 1939 State of the Union Address since they had been assigned to work on the "detailed estimates of what was needed for an adequate defense" that Roosevelt would promise in the speech.
Roosevelt delivered his annual message when Congress assembled on January 4, 1939. A calm but determined president described the menacing march of aggression overseas, spelled out its implications for the United States, and then dealt directly with neutrality. "Aggressive acts against sister [democratic] nations ... automatically undermine all of us," he said. "When we deliberately try to legislate neutrality, our neutrality laws may operate unevenly and unfairly—may actually give aid to an aggressor and deny it to the victim. The instinct of self-preservation should warn us that we ought not to let that happen any more." A revision of the arms embargo provision of the neutrality laws as well as a defense buildup, the president concluded, were "measures short of war," the phrase by which the speech became known. Such measures would foster collective security among peace-loving nations.
Despite Senator Robert Taft's well-publicized complaint that implementation of the president's speech would lead the United States straight to the battlefields of Europe, Roosevelt persisted in his effort to get the arms embargo lifted. Three weeks later he met with the Senate's Foreign Affairs Committee. The intentions of the Axis powers are clear and have been for nearly three years, he began. There seemed to him at best a fifty-fifty chance that France and England could stop Hitler's advance. With Europe under the dictator's domination, Roosevelt continued, Africa was next and then Central and South America. The United States was likely to follow. Neutral or not, he concluded, it was in the country's best interest to arm France and Britain right away.
Publicly, the president said nothing like this, because he was still hoping to persuade Hitler to let the United States mediate between the Allies and the Axis. While communication between the leaders was ongoing, Roosevelt did not want to jeopardize the possibility, no matter how remote, of acting as neutral umpire. All hope died with the Nazi invasion of Poland and with France and England's declaration of war against Germany on September 3. That night the president spoke to the nation. He opened with a statement that "every effort of your government will be directed" toward keeping the United States out of war and then reviewed his own attempts to preserve peace. Echoing Woodrow Wilson's plea for neutrality in 1914, Roosevelt also asked for neutrality in deed if not in thought. "Even a neutral cannot be asked to close his mind or conscience."
In his struggle to effect repeal of the embargo provision of the Neutrality Act, he resorted to double-talk like this, but his real purpose in this speech was to make points with Congress, which had been called back to Washington for an "extraordinary" session. When it reconvened three weeks later, Roosevelt assured the body that a repeal would permit the sale of arms to the Allies, a "truer neutrality" than the present policy of aiding aggressors by default. Illogical as the argument appears, he had exactly captured the mood of the country: Support the Allies but stay out of war. He got what he asked for, even if the Allies had to pay in advance and provide their own transport.
Cash-and-carry arms turned out to be a short-lived stopgap, for France surrendered and England ran out of cash less than a year later, but even so, the policy energized isolationists for their last hurrah. Led by men like famed aviator Charles Lindbergh, Senators Bennett Clark, Gerald Nye, and Burton Wheeler, Congressman Hamilton Fish, and the Detroit radio priest Father Charles Coughlin, with the backing of Hearst's and Patterson's tabloids and Colonel McCormick's Chicago Tribune, they persuaded a sizable number of U.S. citizens that troubles in Europe were none of this country's business. Besides, they claimed, it was too late for the United States to catch up with the Axis powers' early start on munitions building. Roosevelt feared the "large funds at [the isolationists'] disposal for propaganda purposes." Moreover, he said, "they could command the services of a handful of U.S. senators who knew they had the power to filibuster, and who were willing to use that power, if necessary, to gain their ends."
To counter their strong emotional appeal, the president began his 1940 annual message to Congress by proclaiming the "vast difference between keeping out of war and pretending that war is none of our business.... Look ahead," he said, and figure out what kind of future American children might have if "the world comes to be dominated by concentrated forces alone," or if "world trade is controlled by any nation or group of nations which sets up that control through military force." Roosevelt offered principles without applications, because although the United States had power, until it had the will to act, he dared not utter a threat or offer a commitment for fear of political consequences. U.S. foreign policy, as a result, was ingenious rather than forthright, the best substitute the president could improvise for the more assertive policy he was debarred from following.
Only after the seismic shock of Hitler's advance far behind Allied lines did the president drop circuitous reasoning. From May 16, when he next addressed a joint session of Congress, until he achieved all-out, no-strings-attached aid to Britain, he used strong, blunt, direct language. In the preceding week Holland had surrendered to the Nazis, Belgium was in ruins, and France, supposed to have had the finest army in Europe, was close to giving up.
As the current writing triumvirate of Rosenman, Corcoran, and Cohen worked with the president on the important May speech, they had, according to Rosenman, "one eye on the war cables and the other on the message." All the while Roosevelt was in the process of making a momentous decision. Many in his inner circle were advising that the fight in Europe was hopeless, so he should keep all weapons at home for U.S. defense. Instead, Roosevelt called for making arms shipment abroad a priority to give the nation the time it needed to prepare adequately for its own defense.
Standing before the podium of the House, his leg braces firmly locked in place, Roosevelt waited for the 526 men and five women of Congress to be seated. "These are ominous days," he solemnly intoned. "The clear fact is that the American people must recast their thinking about national protection." Air-age technology had so shrunk the globe, the president reminded the nation, that aggressors abroad might suddenly imperil U.S. shores. The Atlantic and Pacific Oceans do not afford the protection isolationists claim, he continued. Detailing the advantage in armaments enjoyed by the Axis powers, Roosevelt asked Congress "not to take any action which would in any way hamper or delay the delivery of American made planes to foreign nations which have ordered them, or seek to purchase new planes. That from the point of view of our defense would be extremely shortsighted." Then he set a production goal of 50,000 planes a year, a figure that was ridiculed by the isolationists but was surpassed by a production of 90,000 in 1943. Next Roosevelt called for new appropriations for the armed services, and in a ringing conclusion, he proclaimed his faith in the dormant powers of an aroused democracy: "There are some who say that democracy cannot cope with the new technique of government developed in recent years by a few countries which deny the freedoms we maintain are essential to our democratic way of life. This I reject." The United States will require "a toughness of moral and physical fiber," he admitted, but herein lie "the characteristics of a free people, a people devoted to the institutions they themselves have built." A sustained ovation echoed throughout the chamber as the president, using a cane and an arm of a Secret Service man, made his way out of the room.
Ten days later Roosevelt talked to the nation in a fireside chat that Rosenman and Hopkins drafted. Speaking to announce his armament plans and to foster unity, he assured all groups that any speedup of the economy for defense purposes would benefit everyone equally. Crisis or no crisis, he said, New Deal labor reforms were here to stay.
The news from Europe worsened daily. Armchair strategists moved their colored map pins as commentators described panzer thrusts in northern Europe. Everyone in the United States knew what blitzkriegs were. Shortwave sets in Washington, D.C., picked up impassioned pleas from the French prime minister for America to intervene. On June 10, Italy declared war on France, then in extremis. "On this tenth day of June, 1940," the president said in a commencement address before his son's law school graduating class at the University of Virginia, "the hand that held the dagger has struck it into the back of its neighbor." The draft for this speech came from the State Department; Roosevelt inserted the sentence that so dramatically described Italy's infamy. On June 22, France capitulated and the Battle of Britain began. England alone stood between Hitler and his total mastery of Europe.
England's future was not promising at that moment. It was in dire need of ships, having lost so many of its own vessels to U-boat attacks. Roosevelt, at great political risk, traded fifty refurbished World War I destroyers for ninety-nine-year leases on British naval and air bases in the Western Hemisphere. Strictly speaking, the swap was not legal. It may not have been an outright gift, but it was certainly not cash-and-carry. Many Republicans and military men, fortunately, spoke up in favor of the trade, one calling it the greatest bargain since the Louisiana Purchase. On the other hand, the richest and most influential antiwar organization was created in direct response to the trade.
Founded by a Yale law school student, this organization—the Committee to Defend America First—chose General Robert Wood, chairman of Sears, Roebuck, to be its leader. Arguing that armaments must be kept at home for U.S. defense, the group attracted 800,000 members in its first six months. Every isolationist on Capitol Hill, still a goodly number, enrolled in its ranks. The committee ran full-page advertisements in the nation's newspapers attacking Roosevelt's foreign policy.
There was now a curiously mottled, unstable quality to public opinion about foreign policy. America Firsters and other isolationist groups like Gerald L. K. Smith's committee of one million clashed with smaller, even more extreme groups. Ethnic isolationists like German- and Italian-Americans were resentful that most Americans harbored bitterness toward their former homelands, and Irish-Americans exhibited malevolence toward the English for two and a half centuries of persecution. There was also division within the ranks of the interventionists, including the best-known group, the Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies.
By way of visitors, polls, mail, newspapers, his own experts, and his intuitive political perception, Roosevelt picked up these soundings and took them to heart. His next speech called for a unified America. Hopkins and Rosenman worked on the September 11 speech with the president at his home in Hyde Park, New York, and in Washington, D.C. Speaking before the teamsters union convention, Roosevelt sought to rally not only the teamsters' support but that of "farmers and businessmen," factory workers, and, by implication, all Americans because "our mighty national defense effort in which we are engaged today" requires "a united people." Without union, "the morale of the people, as essential as guns and planes," is at risk. "Weakness in these days," the president said, "is a cordial invitation to attack. That's no longer a theory; it's a proven fact." And then forthrightly addressing the peace at any-price crowd, he said, "Let's have an end to the sort of appeasement that seeks to keep us helpless by playing on fear."
Not until October did Roosevelt publicly acknowledge that an election campaign was in progress, even though he was seeking an unprecedented third term. He had never even mentioned his opponent by name, but Wendell Willkie had been barnstorming the country, giving three or four speeches a day in which he accused the president of steering the nation toward social progress rather than toward preparedness. Supported by an overwhelmingly pro-Willkie press, the challenger began making headway in the polls by early October. Urged on by alarmed Democrats, the president announced five political speeches for the final two weeks before the election.
While assuming an above-the-fray role, the president had actually been stung by Willkie's charge. Roosevelt knew only too well how underprepared the United States was. Its army, which had languished in skeletal form since World War I, stood behind not only the armies of Germany, Britain, Russia, Italy, Japan, and China, but those of Portugal, Spain, Sweden, even tiny Switzerland. Congress had been engaged in a three-month debate over a proposed draft, the nation's first in peacetime which passed in mid-October. Between the second and third of his campaign speeches, FDR returned to Washington to draw the first numbers under the Selective Service Act. In addition to the charge of slacker, Republicans had repeatedly and contrarily called him a warmonger, so he was careful in choosing words for the broadcast ceremony on October 16. Eschewing "selective service," "draft," "conscription," he hit upon "muster" to describe the new law, a fine choice that evoked memories of the farmers of Concord and Lexington taking their flintlock muskets down from fireplaces.
On October 28 he addressed a rally at Madison Square Garden in New York. On the grounds that the best defense in a weakened position is a strong offense, Roosevelt replied to Willkie's charges by using a favorite campaign weapon, ridicule of Republican inconsistency: "For almost seven years the Republican leaders in Congress kept on saying that I was placing too much emphasis on national defense.... Now always with their eyes on the good old ballot box, they are charging that we have placed too little emphasis on national defense. But, unlike them, the printed pages of the Congressional Record cannot be changed ... at election time."
The record proved an effective counterattack. Quoting one statement after another made before 1940 by Republican leaders that the United States was spending too much for defense, Roosevelt compared their changed positions to "The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze," a popular revival of an old song. The Republicans' capricious tenets, the president said, are like "somersaults or trapeze acts. On the radio Republican orators swing through the air with the greatest of ease, but the American people are not voting this year for the best trapeze performer."
Then the president moved from Republican statements to their voting records. (Roosevelt had told Rosenman and Sherwood, who had by this time joined the speechwriting team, to make a list of Republican votes.) His masterpiece of derision was a matter of rhyme and rhythm. First he cited chapter and verse on GOP leadership in opposition to administration defense measures. He concluded his lists of the various bills they had voted against with the specific votes of the three top Republican House leaders, Representatives Bruce Barton, Hamilton Fish, and Joseph Martin, Jr. (In the first draft, their names had been alphabetized, but during a speech session Rosenman and Sherwood suddenly perceived the more euphonious sequence of Martin, Barton, and Fish. The president repeated the sequence several times and indicated by swinging his finger how effective it would be with audiences.) Twice he used it at Madison Square Garden. The second time the crowd shouted the names with him, and the phrase echoed throughout the nation. In Boston a couple of nights later, when he cited yet more votes at cross-purposes to his own preparedness bills, the audience shouted Barton and Fish in reply to each mention of Martin. In spite of the fun the president had at his opponents' expense, he had actually tread very cautiously, fearing his policy of all-out assistance short of sending U.S. troops to Britain would be reversed.
On November 5 Roosevelt won the election with a healthy 449 electoral votes to Willkie's 82.
On the night of the election, the Luftwaffe unloaded tons of megabombs over London, the fiftieth consecutive night of Nazi air attacks. More than 900 RAF planes, many thousands of civilians, and the industrial heart of England had been lost in the raids. The very symbol of Anglo-Saxon democracy, the House of Commons, lay in ruins. U-boats had sunk so many merchant marine ships, the country's food supply was shrinking. The British government turned to the United States for help. England had been buying supplies from the United States, and according to the cash-and-carry terms specified in the Neutrality Act of 1939, had paid in advance and transported them across the Atlantic in its own ships. By the end of 1940, however, England was close to flat broke, and too many of its ships were disabled or destroyed to spare any for shipping even desperately needed munitions and food.
During a postelection Caribbean vacation on the USS Tuscaloosa, Roosevelt contrived a means of circumventing neutrality legislation so England could be saved. He had no idea how to execute his plan legally, he told Hopkins, but he knew he must find a way. The plan was Lend-Lease, the notion that the United States would send Britain munitions without charge and be repaid not in dollars but in kind after the war. The more he and Hopkins talked, the more buoyant the president became about his scheme.
Roosevelt returned to Washington on December 16. The next day he opened his 702nd press conference by offhandedly disclaiming "any particular news." For a while he casually talked about the inaugural and then carefully set about depicting himself as a reasonable middle-of-the-roader. With the extravagant claim that "a very overwhelming number of Americans believed the best American defense was aid for Britain," he made out that some of those people thought the United States should lend money and others that the country should give money for necessary weapons. He knew full well few people entertained such ideas, but he went on to describe this kind of hypothetical thinking as "banal."
"Now, what I am trying to do," he continued, "is to eliminate the dollar sign. That is something brand new in the thoughts of everybody in this room, I think." And then, as he had done so often before, he chose a homey metaphor to illustrate how he meant to get "rid of the silly, foolish, old dollar sign," and in so saying, he paved the way to Lend-Lease with his irresistible analogy of the garden hose.
Suppose my neighbor's home catches fire, and I have a length of garden hose four or five hundred feet away. If he can take my hose and connect it up with his hydrant, I may help him put out his fire. Now what do I do? I don't say to him before that operation, "Neighbor, my garden hose cost me $15; you have to pay me $15 for it." ... I don't want $15; I want my garden hose back after it is over. If it goes through the fire intact, he gives it back to me and thanks me for the use of it. But suppose it gets smacked up—gets holes in it—during the fire; we don't have too much formality about it, but I say to him, "I was glad to lend you that hose; I see I can't use it anymore." ... He says, "All right, I will replace it." Now, if I get a nice garden hose back, I am in pretty good shape.
No one asked what use repayment "in kind" would be after the war and thus why his plan was not an outright gift of munitions. One perceptive reporter did point out a lack of ready U.S. war materiel to lend, but the president dismissed this incovenient fact as unimportant. The moral of his simple and emotional metaphor was clear: By sending supplies to the British now, the United States would be abundantly repaid by the increase to its own security.
Highly engaging accounts of the press conference appeared in newspapers across the country. "By the brilliant but simple trick of making news and being news," wrote historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., "Roosevelt outwitted the open hostility of publishers and converted the press into one of the most effective channels of public leadership." But news accounts of the press conference were only part one of Rooseveltian salesmanship. Part two was a radio speech to the nation that he announced would take place December 29.
The day after Christmas, speechwriters Samuel Rosenman and Robert Sherwood moved into the White House to collaborate on the speech with Hopkins, already living at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and the president. With official Washington home for the holiday, the four men worked more or less uninterruptedly day and night. Hopkins provided the key phrase, "arsenal of democracy." All four writers agreed that it was to be as important a speech as Roosevelt's first on March 12, 1933, and so the president opened the speech with a reference to the earlier speech: "I tried to convey to the great mass of American people what the banking crisis meant to them in their daily lives. Tonight I want to do the same thing with the same people, in this new crisis which faces America." He then spoke of the impossibility of appeasing Hitler—"No man can tame a tiger into a kitten by stroking it"—of the need for an Allied victory to ensure U.S. security, of the dangers ahead if Britain were to fall. With a sure sense of geography, he showed how the Nazis could step from base to base right up to our borders. Worse, he continued, "if Great Britain goes down, the Axis powers could control the continents of Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia, and the high seas." Keeping in mind the fervent wish of Americans to stay out of war, Roosevelt justified aid to Britain on the grounds of self-interest. "The people of Europe who are defending themselves do not ask us to do their fighting. They ask for the implements of war, the planes, the tanks, the guns, the freighters, which will enable them to fight for their liberty and our security.... We must be the great arsenal of democracy."
The speech echoed like a clarion call to the world's remaining democracies. In the United States, more people listened to the president—76 percent—than had ever done so before. New York's theater owners and the nation's movie-house managers noted a drop in attendance on December 29. In London, citizens stunned after the bombing demolition of the square mile of the old walled city of London huddled around radios at 3:30 A.M. and cheered the vibrant voice coming to them from across the Atlantic; this, despite the loss of eight Christopher Wren churches, the ancient Guildhall, seat of the city's municipal government since William the Conqueror, and Old Bailey, the central criminal court. Huge fires had spread from Moorgate to Aldergate, from Old Street to Cannon Street. As the New York Times later reported on December 31, the Germans destroyed 500 years of English history in two hours.
German propaganda ministers had timed the dramatic assault to coincide with the president's radio speech in the hopes that stories of London's ruin would undermine the effect of the fireside chat. But Roosevelt's words buoyed up millions all over the world. The U.S. ambassador to Japan, Joseph Grew, commented that this speech would mark a turning point in history.
On January 6, 1941, Roosevelt formally presented his Lend-Lease plan to Congress as H.R. 1776. For the next two months a fierce and final battle raged between the isolationists and the interventionists about how to best protect the United States. Roosevelt's perspective triumphed. At the signing of Lend-Lease on March 11, 1941, he remarked, "The decisions of our democracy may be slowly arrived at. But when a decision is made, it is proclaimed not with the voice of one man but with the voice of 130 million." Looking back at this protracted battle against isolationism, speechwriter Hopkins later said, "Roosevelt had more to do than any man in his time in arousing the conscience of the civilized world to the menace of fascism and Nazism. And he did it by making speeches."
Few Americans then or now have grasped the genius with which Roosevelt made use of the bully pulpit. Clare Boothe Luce, for example, wife of publisher Henry Luce, made frequent fun of the president for what she called his continual shilly-shallying with impotent words. She mocked what she called his weakness and lassitude in the face of a disintegrating civilization by comparing the symbolic gestures that world leaders had come to be known by to a sign she thought fit for the president. Churchill had his fingered V for victory, she said; Hitler, a stiff arm raised above his head; Mussolini, a strut; and Roosevelt? She moistened her index finger and held it aloft to test the wind. She was clever, and she was accurate, but she had missed the point. As the president had explained in a letter to his friend Helen Reid, wife of the publisher of the Republican New York Herald Tribune, "You say you have been a pacifist all your life but you are now for universal service. From what extremes do the pendulums swing for us as individuals? Governments such as ours cannot swing so far or so quickly. They can only move in keeping with the thought and will of the great majority of our people.... Were it otherwise the very fabric of democracy ... would be in danger of disintegration."
Roosevelt had sensed the danger coming as early as the mid-1930s. Despite initial praise, reactions to his blunt warning in the 1937 Quarantine Speech made him realize how unwilling Americans were at that time to act in concert with other nations, even other freedom-loving nations. Consequently, in 1938 and 1939, he softened his discourse on behalf of collective security; as war grew more imminent, he stepped up the tempo and directness of the rhetoric. As assistant secretary of the navy during the Wilson administration, Roosevelt had learned "the terrible responsibility of bringing a divided nation into war. He was going to be sure, very sure, that if the United States had to enter the war, it would enter as far as humanly possible a united nation." But when time ran out, and although barely 50 percent of Americans were willing to consider aid to Britain, the president urged the nation to become the great "arsenal of democracy." That speech alone, owing in large measure to its felicitous metaphor by which the speech is known, raised the percentage to 60.
Although Roosevelt died before the end of the war, his goal of making the United States the "arsenal of democracy" had been abundantly fulfilled. Between 1940 and 1945, the United States contributed 300,000 warplanes to the Allied cause. American factories produced more than two million trucks, 107,351 tanks, 87,620 warships, 5,475 cargo ships, over twenty million rifles, machine guns, and pistols, and forty-four million rounds of ammunition. This outpouring of war materiel was the dominant factor in winning the war.
Roosevelt's stunning success in mobilizing the nation rested on his notion of the purpose of presidential speechmaking. He had been "in the midst of a long process of education," he said in 1938, because "a nation has be educated to the point where [the goal] can be assimilated without spasms of indigestion." His strategy of gradually leading his countrymen from being neutral to feeling sympathy for the Allied cause to having the will to act had worked. Without doubt he was helped in achieving his goal by fostering close relationships with his speechwriting advisers and by granting them significant roles in policy decisions. "More than any other president," Samuel Rosenman said, "perhaps more than any other political figure in history, FDR used the spoken and written word to exercise leadership and carry out policies."
|Franklin Delano Roosevelt|
|2||Holding the Line||36|
|Harry S. Truman|
|Dwight David Eisenhower|
|John Fitzgerald Kennedy|
|Lyndon Baines Johnson|
|3||The Virtual Presidency||76|
|Richard Millhous Nixon|
|Ronald Wilson Reagan|
|4||The Message in the Bottle||116|
|Gerald Rudolph Ford|
|James Earl Carter|
|George Herbert Walker Bush|
|5||Street Up Their Band||156|
|William Jefferson Clinton|